There is a seemingly casual moment in Yasser Arafat, a new political documentary on the former Palestinian president that has just been screened for the first time at the Copenhagen film festival, that chills the blood. Suha Arafat, the leader’s widow, who is talking about him on camera for the first time, is discussing the nature of Arafat’s military operations when she is gently asked by an off-camera voice whether those were directed against military or civilian targets.
“Mostly military,” she replies, and she goes on to talk about the internal pressures faced by Arafat. The interviewer does not follow up, declining to press home the point. But the word “mostly” does the work for him. It is an unusually candid response. It treats its audience like grown-ups. Political leaders are never wholly innocent in their manoeuvring towards what they regard as greater ends.
I spoke about that moment to the interviewer in question, Richard Symons, over a coffee in Soho earlier this week. He and the film’s co-producer Joanna Natasegara were preparing to take the documentary to the Dubai film festival early next month, where it is expected to be introduced by Suha Arafat in person. He acknowledges that if he had been Jeremy Paxman, interrogator-in-chief on the BBC’s Newsnight, he would have pounced on Suha Arafat’s reply, but he opted to let it go. Her admission was eloquent enough, he says.
The film is the first in a series made by Symons and Natasegara’s production company, Split Level, under the title of The Price of Kings. Another two have already been made, one on the Israeli president Shimon Peres, to be released in the coming weeks, and another on Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica. They are first and foremost portraits of leadership, with a subtitle hanging heavy over them: what sacrifices would you make for what you believe in? What, in other words, is the collateral damage, personal and political, of statesmanship?
The film on Arafat attempts to be politically neutral, a task that is hard enough in itself. It borrows some of its techniques from Norma Percy’s masterly studies of political conflict in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, in seeking personal testimonies from some of the major players around its subject. Through the kaleidoscope, a kind of truth emerges. Peres himself talks generously of Arafat’s “extraordinary courage” in being among the first prominent Arab leaders to recognise Israel, and in modifying Palestinian demands in the cause for peace.
That was one form of sacrifice. But there was also a personal cost to be paid. Suha Arafat recounts that when her baby Zahwa was born in France, the hospital received a bomb threat. Mother and child were moved to a more secure base in bulletproof vests. Zahwa was not yet a day old. It was a sobering introduction to a troubled world.
It is this kind of narrative detail – about the trade-off between the intimate and the overarching narrative of complex events – that fascinates Symons and Natasegara. They use a technical sleight-of-hand, which they nickname the “interrotron”, which makes it look like interviewees are talking and looking straight into the camera, rather than towards a questioner at the side. It makes for intense viewing, suited better to the cinema than to television.
In the rhythm of political affairs, there are but rare moments when true leaders are able to influence matters. In cases of conflict, years of gritty compromise and the abandonment of previously held principles are required before there is any progress towards peace. In Yasser Arafat, the moment of near-transcendence occurs in the wake of the Oslo accords of 1993, when Arafat and Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, having shared the most distastefully held handshake of modern times, go on to achieve, according to insiders quoted in the film, some degree of mutual respect and trust.
But Rabin would be assassinated by an extremist from his own side two years later. Arafat knew he would never come so close to achieving peace again, and his political demise was under way. It is constantly surprising, says Symons, to learn of the dependence of epochal world events on individual characters. “If you compare the fortitude of Rabin and Arafat to what is happening today, [current leadership] feels very wanting,” he says. “The thing about true leadership is that you have to give something of yourself that is greater than most of us can even imagine.”
That may be so. The extent of their sacrifice was indisputable but it still amounted to nothing. I ask the filmmakers if the modern world’s problems were simply too intractable for true leadership to flourish. “No,” they reply as one, with disarming swiftness. “These stories are inspiring,” says Natasegara. “They involve people who are extraordinary, for better and for worse.”
But were there not notable vacuums of leadership wherever you looked? Had either of them checked out the Republican party nomination process in the US recently?
“The thing we have learned along the way,” says Symons, “is that it is not only leaders who have to step up to the plate. We have to do the same, all of us. As citizens.”
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden